Photo: Gus Martinie/Shutterstock

The Divine Chant Of The Monks

by Beebe Bahrami Apr 9, 2009
The sacred chanting of the Gregorian monks can offer balm for the soul. If you listen hard enough, you may even hear a hint of the divine.

During four-months of backpacking and research across Spain, I found myself in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, 57 kilometers south of Burgos.

I planned on experiencing as much as possible the rhythms of Benedictine monastic life.

Open to the public, the chanted prayer of the monks at Silos occurs six times a day in the monastery church. They perform their cycle of prayer in the form of plainsong, also known as Gregorian chant.

The Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos is home of the monks made famous when their CD, Chant, was released in 1994.

The lineage of the land here goes deep. Previously inhabited by prehistoric populations, Celtiberians, Romans, Visigoths, and Muslims, the current monastery was founded in the 10th century over a ruined Visigothic monastery that was destroyed during an 8th century incursion from Muslim invaders.

Immersed in this deep ancestry, I wonderd what would happen if I went to chanted prayer six times a day.

A Chance Encounter

Before my first chance to attend chanted prayer (7pm for Vespers), I stretched my legs and took in all the streets of the village, relishing in its medieval pattern and the sense that time has stood still.

>Until, that is, I passed an elderly man who looked back at me with a bewildered, wild eyes, before suddenly unfurling unbidden obscenities at me.

My stability unraveled and I rushed away, taking alternate streets to get back to my room so as to avoid running into him. I did my best to clear my mind of the experience and then headed back out to my first session with the monks in the monastery church.

For the rest of the weekend, I entered into a rhythm of going to each prayer session: Matins, Lauds, the Eucharist, Sext, Vespers, and Compline, held throughout the days.

I interspersed prayer times with walks into the wild countryside of Castile and three course country meals paired with local vintages at the traditional country inns in the village. The monks weren’t suffering for good food and wine, so I decided to join their monastic tradition on that front, too.

The Monks Arrive

After two days of constant sung prayer, something did happen.

It was Sunday evening during Compline, the last prayer of the day. The monks arrived as usual, streaming in from a door behind the apse and standing on both sides of the church altar, a brother in the middle to guide the chant.

I loved the times of day, early and late, when there were very few visitors because then the monks were more themselves. One blew his nose while chanting, another rubbed his tired eyes.

They always showed each other great reverence, a thou relationship, bowing at each other upon entering and upon leaving. It was clear they saw each other as extensions of God.

There were four other lay people present, like me, sitting in the nave. I felt my state of presence had increased with these sessions – and now I was also finding that something significant was happening on a cellular level, as if my body and mind were pulsating at a different frequency.

I closed my eyes as the chanting washed over me. I pictured the monks on the altar, but they were emitting light from the crowns of their heads. It was a white light – but when it joined in the center of their circle, far above the dome of the church, it turned to purple.

It was like a complex maze or kaleidoscope of purple lines and luminous emissions, weaving a great cosmic tapestry with a deep purple center that acted like a tunnel, a great portal on a cosmic highway. It was truly one of the most beautiful things I’d ever “seen.”

A Glimpse Of God

As I am not Catholic and was not raised in a Catholic system. Whatever that was that I experienced was not being channeled through a particular belief system.

It felt universally sacred, offered through the discipline of intentional sound and vibration. As the chanting ceased, as the brothers bowed to each other, as one brother turned to us and wished us blessings, the few lay people got up to leave.

I sat a bit longer, still engulfed by the impact of my vision. An elderly man walked past me. I looked up and saw that it was the deranged man from the day before, the one who could not control the stream of obscenities that pushed past his lips.

But he was transformed, or better, trance-formed. His face, especially his eyes, were vibrant, clear, and shining. Plump tears were rolling down his cheeks. He stopped before me briefly and tilted his head in a respectful nod.

He then walked on past, whispering the sweetest buenas noches I’d ever heard.

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